Surfing the Web for Cancer Information
by Janet Teixeira, LCSW
The Internet can be a tremendous source of information for people with cancer, but it can also instill fear and pessimism that can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to cope with and beat this disease.
As a cancer resource coach, I regularly speak with people after they have typed their diagnosis into a search engine and then spent hours in front of their computer screen. Often, I find myself working with callers to put their findings into perspective. I point out that each person is different and that although many of their findings might be frightening, that doesn’t mean they can only look forward to a negative outcome.
So what’s my best advice in this Internet age? Never surf alone. Find someone to sit with you to offer perspective, another viewpoint, or simply companionship. You might start with that person who, when they hear you have cancer, responds “let me know if there’s anything I can do.” It’s so important, especially early in your search, that you NOT go it alone. This person might at least help you get started.
Next, consider someone who works in the medical field. Your doctor or nurse may not be a practical choice due to time restraints. Perhaps a relative or friend who works in a doctor’s office could be a good place to start.
Maybe you know someone who works in the medical field but not necessarily in a doctor’s office. He or she may have a background that can help you understand cancer information. Assure the person that you are just looking for perspective, not definitive yes and no answers.
A cancer survivor would also be a great asset to your Web search. The survivor can offer personal insight. Who better to collect information with than a person who has already beaten cancer?
Find out if there is a medical librarian available in your community. Medical librarians are located within medical schools and in many hospitals. They provide objective information, often do personalized Web searches, and may give you guidance on how to search the Web on your own.
Yet even with these resources, our tendency is to look for answers and information immediately. That’s how society is in this Internet age. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind during your Web search:
- Statistics are general. They don’t define your outcome. There may be significant factors that might change how those statistics apply to you.
- Consider the source. Just as important as the actual cancer information is the credibility of the source publishing that information. Credible comprehensive websites include National Cancer Institute (cancer.gov), American Cancer Society (cancer.org), and CancerCare (cancercare.org). There are also many credible cancer-type-specific websites.
- Understand the difference between objective information and marketing. The Internet is a great tool for companies and individuals to promote their products and themselves. Keep this in mind when searching for medical information. Ask yourself, “Is something being sold here?”
If the answer is yes, then the site content may be influenced by those who are financially supporting it. This may have more impact on a .com site than on a .org site, as the latter is typically a nonprofit organization that customarily relies on the financial support of individuals, foundations, and corporations while maintaining objectivity.
- Keep a notebook. Write down questions that occur to you during your search, and ask your doctor or nurse these questions at your next appointment. There is so much to learn, and keeping notes is an excellent tool for staying on track.
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Janet Teixeira is executive director of Cancer Care Connection (CancerCareConnection.org), a telephone service staffed by cancer resource coaches who work with people affected by cancer to help them identify resources, make informed decisions, and take positive action.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2011.